While foodservice and hospitality staff shortages have been front and center in the media, golf courses are also struggling to fill positions across the country. ClubLink, with more than 50 championship courses in Ontario, Quebec, and Florida, is certainly feeling the challenge. We spoke with Brent Miller, Vice President, Marketing and Business Development, at ClubLink to get a perspective from Canada’s largest owner and operator of golf clubs.

“The demand side of the business has become very favourable through the pandemic,” said Miller. “While demand relaxed slightly last season, we don’t see a return to 2019 levels happening anytime soon.”

“It really has been a quantum leap from a growth perspective. People were talking about golf being in a ‘decline cycle’ pre-pandemic. Now, most of our courses have waiting lists. From a marketing perspective, we’ve turned our efforts towards engaging our existing audience rather than using a traditional media spend to attract new prospects.”

However, with the increase in demand, challenges have emerged. Today, ClubLink has approximately 450 full-time employees and typically requires approximately 4,000 seasonal workers. The availability of seasonal workers has dropped significantly during the pandemic and continues to be an issue for ClubLink, and golf in general. Miller framed what the staffing issue means at the operational level.
“We mostly operate member clubs where there is a high service level that must be met. When golfers come to a ClubLink facility, they look forward to quality service from friendly staff and a great course – even at our daily fee courses.

We have managers that have been working very hard to make up for the lack of head count for three years now. We’ve had close to 1,000 seasonal positions go unfilled the last two years We simply had to make fundamental operational adjustments and investments to protect and support our people.”

In what at first seemed to be a counterproductive strategy on the service front, Miller indicated that ClubLink has made the bold move to eliminate the refreshment cart. Yes, eliminate the refreshment cart! However, for ClubLink to execute this idea and maintain service level expectations, new operational protocols, amenities and proactive communications were required, along with supporting increases in capital budgets. Technology upgrades will further enhance these related services in the future.

The first move is to make sure golfers still have easy access to refreshments before their round, midway through the round (at least once) and the usual post golf clubhouses.

In lieu of the cart service, ClubLink is making sure there is an appropriate amount food and beverage outlets in the right places, where members and guests need the service. This will inevitably lead to building more permanent food and beverage stations at certain locations. Communications supporting this move will be stepped up. Members will be encouraged to preorder for their day. As well, ClubLink teams on the ground will be informing golfers that they can get food and drinks at the halfway house and at various permanent hole stations throughout the day.

“Through our geo-fencing technology, we know that a golfer teeing off on the ninth hole has ordered a lunch package at the turn, which can be prepared and ready when they arrive.” Most golfers joke that the cart is never there when needed and hate to wait for the group in front getting service before continuing to play; all of which can add 15 to 20 minutes of frustration to their day. This forward-thinking process just may eliminate these issues.

“Technology and CapEx investments will certainly help us maintain and provide better service with less staff. Changes to government regulations have also aided this process. A simple thing like not having to open a beer when we serve it, means we can have a cooler pre-packed for you when you arrive, or if ordered in advance online. How convenient is that?” added Miller.

The ClubLink team is also investing in technology to enhance services and its overall operational efficiency. Beginning with a new reservation system and point of sale for golf in 2023, future plans include new hospitality features that could allow members and guests to plan their experience ahead of time and place orders in advance. Be it snacks, beers, golf balls, a welcome pack for their guests or lunch at the turn, everything can be waiting for you when you are ready for it. This will be supported through geo-fencing technology.

Most courses have already switched to touchless services to alleviate cash issues. ClubLink is expanding this principle to integrate the whole golfing experience.

Another key strategic move is to dramatically reduce the number of ClubLink golf/country club facilities that host weddings and banquets, at least for now. Weddings require significant staff and inject substantial operational complexity into the mix. Miller made the case for the move.

“We have a strong overall business and pre-pandemic our wedding business represented approximately 5% of our revenue. We lost it all during the pandemic. The question was, do we invest to build it back? Our team made the move to remain focused on golf and hospitality services to golfers.”

While this seems like a bold move, a dive into the numbers shows that some courses had only a handful of weddings and, quite simply, not worth the added complexity.

Miller maintains that focusing on the growth of the food and beverage department is a high priority.
“We need to become more efficient in our purchases across the system. We also need to look for new ideas for growth. That is where Foodbuy comes into play. We can leverage their reporting system to close gaps and take advantage of opportunities. We expect Foodbuy to help us ensure we are optimizing our supplier relationships. It is simply a must do at our end for us to continue to drive growth.”

ClubLink feels these shifts in strategy will help alleviate some of the staffing pressures, while improving the overall experience by simply focusing on the core business and leveraging technology to improve the member and guest experience. If they can do that, they are well on their way to another great year in 2023.

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